Between the Lines of Letters Home
Anxious parents waiting for that first letter home from summer camp would do well to remember Robert Frost's words: ''Don't give up writing to me simply because I don't write to you.''
First-time campers, however homesick, rarely regard letter writing as a remedy. Parents may comfort themselves with the thought that the absence of a letter means their child is too busy having fun. But, more likely, it signifies that letter writing rates right up there with toothbrushing as an activity of choice.
It's unfortunate, because children write some of the most candid, affectionate, and amusing letters in the world -- if you can get them to write.
Girls tend to be more prolific letter writers than boys, simply because they're more tolerant of what my niece termed her camp's ''FOB (flat on bed).'' As a camper myself, I wrote frequent letters but not informative ones. One summer, I survived my first riding lessons, wearing saddle shoes I hated and braving horses that were rumored to nip people or roll in the dust -- saddle, rider, and all. I was terrified and thrilled, in equal measure.
When it came to writing about it, however, I could out-Hemingway the best of them. ''Riding is fun,'' I penned eloquently. ''I ride a horse.''
My brother, on the other hand, wrote letters only under duress and found things a little too restful: ''On a canoe trip some counselors busted three aluminum canoes while shooting some rapids. One was busted in half, another the bow was busted off, and another a hole was put in the bottom.'' His letters showed signs of having survived air combat before they were posted and spoke of buying flashlights in order to have flashlight fights. Still, ''there's not much to say,'' he complained.
Many campers are motivated to write home when the letter is a prerequisite to dinner. Like letters that are written as classroom assignments, however, these missives can be artfully empty. ''I wouldn't be writing this letter, except they made me. My pen is running out of ink. I haven't written to you for so long because so many things have happened. I'm writing so poorly because I'm in a hurry, because the bell will ring in five minutes, and because I'm in an uncomfortable position. The bell just rang.''
My firstborn son, now 14, hated to set pen to paper. I used to pack him off with fill-in-the-blank letters, and I got back these pithy replies (his words in italics): ''Things here are good. The best thing that happened is that I haven't been getting bored lately. What I liked about it was I always had something to do.''
Occasionally, there would be a smidgen of real news under the post- script, as if now that the letter was officially over, he could relax his guard. It is said that women write letters solely for the sake of the P.S. The same made be true of children.
Of the small percentage of campers who choose to write, some tell more than a parent might want to know: ''There is one boy that has a nickname. It is Fishhook. I know he got a fishhook in his head once.'' Or a little less: ''The girls were having a hunting party for some things. One was Ben Reed.''
Children's letters are almost guaranteed to raise more questions than they answer. ''About the survival trip: While we were walking to Hothole Pond we found a dead duck which was killed only about a half hour before we came to it. We then picked it up and brought it with us.''
And some are misguided attempts to ease parents' worries: ''I am having a good time, but the swimming is very bad, but now they are fixing it.''
One great motivator of children's letters is uncertainty. Even a veteran camper may want to ascertain that home remains as usual. Probably one of the most common question from campers is whether someone is looking after the pets.
As campers near adolescence, tension between their close connection with home and their desire for independence can create an emotional pendulum. Indecisiveness may predominate, especially in the first few days of camp. This came home from a 12-year-old at a theater camp in upstate New York: ''Camp's OK. I like the activities. Actually camp's pretty good. I'm a little lonely.''
Trying to read between the lines can be tricky, as this 11-year-old boy demonstrates: ''It has been cold for the past few days. Will you be coming up next time you can? It was raining today. P.S. Having a good time. The thunderstorm didn't bother me much.''
In my own camping days, my trunk was packed and my sentiments clear by the end of August. ''I will be glad to see you again,'' I wrote, and, in the next letter, ''I will be glad to get back home.'' My brother was more matter-of-fact: ''When you come to pick me up would you please bring me a submarine sandwich?''
As a parent, trying to gauge the emotions of my own children as they venture forth, I'm reminded of wise words from my son's kindergarten teacher. She promised to believe only half of what her students said about their parents, if the parents would agree to believe only half of what the kids said about school.
With that in mind, I send letters and care packages, feel good if there's a reply, try not to read between the lines (if there are any), and wait -- with all the patience and trust I can muster -- until that day at the end of summer, when, as Phyllis McGinley wrote, ''Meek-eyed parents hasten down the ramps/ To greet their offspring, terrible from camps.''